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Commentary: 'Harvest Box' is a bad idea as SNAP alternative

Sometimes it's called the food stamps program, sometimes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Whatever you call it, it's expensive and controversial.

Now, the Trump administration — hardly a stranger to controversy — has introduced a proposal that would radically overhaul SNAP. Though Trump's "Harvest Box" program has defenders, the proposal has generated huge criticism, some of it from people whose political support is vital to U.S. agriculture.

In case you're unfamiliar with SNAP:

It gives 46 million low-income Americans an allowance to buy the meat, dairy, grains, fruit, vegetables and other foods, they want to eat. The program cost about $70.9 billion in fiscal year 2016, and typically accounts for roughly half of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's annual budget.

According to the National Council on Aging, every $1 in SNAP benefits generates $1.73 in local economic activity. In addition, 4.8 million Americans over the age of 60 rely on SNAP benefits and receive an average of $108 per month to put food on their table.

Under Trump's Harvest Box proposal, about 81 percent of SNAP households would receive far fewer benefits. They'd get boxes containing "100 percent U.S.-grown and produced food" preselected for its nutritional value. On the surface of the Harvest Box proposal, there is merit in an attempt to increase the nutrition of Americans receiving SNAP benefits.

Some proponents think the Harvest Box program could be more efficient than SNAP, but it would directly hit existing and established grocery businesses. Whether you like it or not, small businesses benefit from the purchases made by SNAP participants, and the Harvest Box program would seem to pit government against free enterprise.

Would small businesses have to cut jobs while government jobs are added to fulfill the demands of the Harvest Box program?

Supporters, including Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, a Trump appointee, have called the proposal "bold" and "innovative."

However, farm groups' reactions generally has been described as "muted." That's a polite way of saying they're trying to avoid public comment — hardly an endorsement of the Harvest Box.

A legion of critics have described the program, among other ways, as "horrible canned food selected by bureaucrats" and "a program fresh from Cold War Bulgaria." That "canned food" comment seems to be more a knock on government surplus programs of the past, not canned food itself, which those of us from the Upper Midwest know to be vital when fresh food is limited in the winter months, SNAP or no SNAP.

At the core of the Harvest Box debate, we find it ironic that some people who normally favor family and individual choice over government now support a program in which the federal government would make food choices, not the people eating it.

Families need to be able to choose the food that is right for them, not the food that someone in the government thinks is right. Giving out food that not all SNAP recipients will use will increase food waste and will not solve the problem of hunger or food insecurity in America.

According to the USDA, food waste is estimated at between 30-40 percent of the food supply. Estimates from the USDA's Economic Research Service show the food loss to be 31 percent at the retail and consumer levels, corresponded to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010. The USDA also says 12.3 percent of U.S. households, or 15.6 million, dealt with food insecurity in 2016, an unchanged statistic from 2015.

We've heard questions about whether rural Americans would need to drive long distances to pick up their boxes. More than 4 million SNAP participants are older than 60. What happens to SNAP participants who don't drive, don't have access to public transportation or can't travel?

We're also concerned by how the rest of the world will perceive the "100 percent American-grown and produced food" component. Should we really expect foreign consumers to buy more U.S.-grown food when the Harvest Box program would close the door on imported food?

There's concern that the Trump administration may be attempting to remove SNAP from the farm bill. Farm-state politicians have believed for decades that including SNAP in the farm bill encourages urban legislators to support federal funding for programs that farmers want. We see no good reason to think that's changed. The existing farm bill expires in September, and lawmakers are working on crafting a new one — and the Harvest Box proposal isn't helping them do it.

Try to separate your attitude toward Trump from your analysis of the Harvest Box program. Whether you generally approve or disapprove of his performance as president, any fair-minded assessment of this proposal finds it deeply flawed.

No, SNAP isn't perfect. Government programs never are. But Harvest Box would be a big step in the wrong direction. So would removing SNAP from the farm bill.

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